Fight the fear of failure:
I used to think as a young graduate student that earning a Ph.D. would make me feel confident in myself and my abilities. It has in some ways, but in other ways I fear career failure now as I enter the final year of my degree just as much as when I began. I worry that I won’t be able to find a job I like or that I’ll fail at interviews. I worry I’ll look back on my life one day and feel as if I didn’t achieve the success I was looking for.
The fear of career failure seems to never completely go away…at least for me.
If you are like me and struggle with this fear, I have a few scriptural pep talks and accompanying exercises that I would like to share with you. I hope these will give you the strength they have been giving me.
1. You Can Fail and Still Be Happy
“Blessed is the one
who does not walk in step with the wicked
or stand in the way that sinners take
or sit in the company of mockers,
but whose delight is in the law of the Lord,
and who meditates on his law day and night.
That person is like a tree planted by streams of water,
which yields its fruit in season
and whose leaf does not wither—
whatever they do prospers.”
-Psalm 1 NIV
Often, the reason I find myself wanting shallow, vaporous forms of “success”— a new car, expensive clothes, a big house, a prestigious job title— is because somewhere in the back of my mind I think these things will make me happy.
Tim Keller, in a remarkable sermon titled “The Search for Happiness”, points out that humans today may not be much happier—if at all—than humans of ancient times. Despite many advances in technology, health, travel, and science, we still get depressed. We feel unfulfilled and question whether we’ve chosen the right “path” for our lives. We constantly fight the fear of failure.
Psalm 1 reminds us that true success that brings happiness is less about what you do and more about who you keep company with, less about what you do and more about what you care about, less about what you do and more about where you are—who or what you seek to draw energy from. You can have this kind of happiness whether or not you get that promotion at work.
Try This Exercise:
Spend time journaling or thinking about these 3 questions:
a. What relationships are you investing in the most? Relationships with people you want to be like or relationships with people you don’t want to be like?
b. If someone watched your life thus far on a TV screen, what would they likely say is most important to you? Is the answer what you truly want it to be?
c. Who or what are you going to for comfort and energy? Is this person or thing someone or something that can truly give you real comfort and energy?
Ask God to draw you toward people who authentically give and receive love, toward a desire for the eternal rather than the temporary, and toward true sources of comfort and energy.
2. Fear of Failure, Itself, can Inhibit Success
“Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to his life?” Matthew 6:27 (NIV)
Of course, the answer to Jesus’ question is “no one.”
Once, I was so anxious about potentially losing my job, that I nearly couldn’t get out of bed. I lie there frozen. I was only able to complete a working document for my job by getting up and working on it for about ten minutes at a time. Then, lying back down.
My worry was keeping me from even working.
There is no quick fix to nipping anxiety in the bud, and for serious anxiety, you should seek help from a healthcare professional (I did, after that day of feeling frozen in my bed). However, there are strategies I’ve found that help me maintain calmness if I feel that calmness teetering.
Fight the Fear of Failure by Trying This Exercise:
On a small piece of paper, write a phrase that seems an effective response to your current, specific worry. Fold up that piece of paper and insert it into your wallet or something that you will likely carry with you throughout the day.
Perhaps the phrase you write could be the answer to Jesus’ question: “Worry will add nothing to my life.”
Or, perhaps it could be the phrase that God and his angels tell so many people, so many times throughout scripture: “Do not be afraid.”
Once, I was so worried about making a difficult decision that the phrase I wrote down and carried in my wallet was: “This is not an irrevocable decision. I am adaptable. I can change with the times. No one decision is final.” If I couldn’t tell myself this phrase, I would be too nervous to even make the decision.
And somehow, the simple act of writing down that response and bearing it as a physical object on my body, looking at it occasionally throughout the day and saying it out loud to myself in a firm voice helped me to shift my thinking each time the worry arises.
3. God Doesn’t Require You to be a Rock Star
During my first semester working as a teacher, I felt like I was doing a horrible job (and truthfully, I probably was—no teacher I’ve met experienced immediate success). One of my students’ faces grew red with anger when I handed her an essay grade, another student told me I made no sense. At times while I led the class, I realized I’d forgotten some important part of the lesson I should have prepared.
I felt so discouraged I wanted to give up. But people told me I could get better at teaching if I kept trying to improve. Also, I didn’t really have a choice until at least the end of the semester. So, I began to try a whispery pep talk with myself to fight the fear of failure.
I’d whisper the pep talk when I thought of a mistake I made in class or feared some other mistake I might make. I’d whisper whether I was in my office, in the halls of the school building, or just about to open the door to my classroom.
And what I whispered to myself was this: “What does the Lord require of you? To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly before the Lord your God” (Micah 6:8 NIV).
This pep talk was a comfort because it took the pressure off me to be a Rockstar Teacher.
God wasn’t asking me to be a rockstar teacher. He was asking me to treat my students fairly, to offer them compassion, and to remember that this was about them getting the information they needed more than about me feeling successful.
Somehow, God’s requirements inexplicably took the pressure off. They didn’t sound as difficult as becoming a Rockstar Teacher. I knew that he would help me to practice the kind of lifestyle this verse asks us to and fight the fear of failure.
4. Your Father in Heaven Loves You Now and Always Will
“Neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God” (Romans 8:38-39 NIV).
A realization I had recently that helped me move forward in love for myself and consequently love for others was that God loved me before I ever did anything: Before I got a Ph.D. before I volunteered to lead that Bible Study, and before I said that nice comment to my neighbor.
He loved me “for my existence,” as a father tells his son in Marilynne Robinson’s wonderful novel, Gilead.
And he still does. No matter what I do or don’t do, he always will.
Author: Annie Shepherd
Annie Shepherd is a teaching fellow at the University of Houston’s creative writing Ph.D. program, concentrating in fiction. Before coming to Houston, she taught ESL in China for two years and earned an MFA in creative writing from Texas State University. She has won writing fellowships and awards from Inprint, University of Houston, and Texas State University, and has taught writing and literature at the college level for over eight years. Her fiction and non-fiction have appeared in nationally-recognized publications including North American Review, The Greensboro Review, and North Dakota Quarterly.